Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper, the Tibetan Buddha
By Ciel Qi
On the edge of Tibetan Plateau, over two thousand kilometers from the din of engines and crowds of Shanghai, I was at Kumbum Monastery for the first time since I went with my dad at the age of five. One of the holiest sites of Gelug, the ascendant of five schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the over one thousand temples that make up the monastery start down the hillside, laid out in rows – bright yellows and reds glowing in the sunshine, golden roofs shining under the azure sky of the last Pure Land. As I stood amidst these temples, casting a retrospective glance at the sights of my childhood, a middle-aged 活佛 (huofo) Tibetan Living Buddha passed by. The warm aroma of Tibetan butter and incense infused the air and then dissipated – half-opened eyes with a faint smile, he moved sluggishly. The Chinese idiom, “大智若愚” or “the biggest wisdom seems like obtuseness,” fits him. A week later, back in Shanghai and in front of my television, a familiar figure appeared in front of me – those half-opened eyes with that faint smile, moving sluggishly – but this time it was Agent Cooper in “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
After 25 years off the air, trapped in the “red room,” my dear Cooper comes back to society, but he comes back stunned. “I want the astute Cooper back!” Scrolling through YouTube comments for the first installments of the new Twin Peaks, I see more than one audience member express this wish. However, I am perhaps a more faithful viewer of David Lynch’s work – I know he always has his reasons. And as my mind wanders back to that day, more than two kilometers above sea level, with the smoke in my lungs from incense and not traffic and factories, the fragrance in my nose from yak butter not multifarious high-street perfumes, I realize that one approach to understanding Cooper’s new condition is to see him as a Tibetan Buddha.
Throughout most of season three, Cooper’s ability to communicate is limited: he can only repeat words said by others. However, he does not repeat like a robot. When Anthony Sinclair is presenting a report at their company meeting, Cooper blurts out, “He’s lying.” This outburst eventually leads their boss, Bushnell Mullins, to see through Sinclair’s scheme to defraud Lucky 7 Insurance. Similarly, Tibetan Buddhas barely talk, but when they do, what they say is brief and useful. My mind wanders again, to another story from the plateau: the father of one of my childhood friends, in his youth, had chronic sleep problems. He would often see “apparitions” floating around during the night, sometimes a dirty-faced boy in a tattered cotton-padded jacket, sometimes a column of ancient warriors in rigid armor. In a Tibetan monastery one day, an old monk stopped in front of him and asked: “Anything troubling you, young man?” He must have mumbled in surprise, faced with such an abrupt question from such a powerful person. “You can see that which is not clean,” the monk said and he passed him a small cloth bag, a talisman. My friend’s dad took it, as he always told it, in complete bewilderment. And just like that, from that day on, the apparitions were gone. He never had problems sleeping again. Several years later, on a return visit to that same monastery, my friend’s dad learned that the old monk had been the monastery’s resident Living Buddha.
In my native Qinghai, a province in the northwest of China where Tibetan Buddhism has a huge influence over all forty-three local ethnicities, one of the most sacrosanct experiences we can have is to be touched by a Living Buddha upon our head, a way of receiving blessings. When Cooper wordlessly taps Sinclair on his shoulders, Sinclair confesses his plan to slip him a poisoned coffee. Cooper graciously prevents this would-be murderer from following through with his plan, giving him a chance to turn his life around; a blessing in another way.
As Dougie, Cooper aids the people around him, though he has no obligation and certainly would do better to be helping himself – his calmness can at times make us forget he is being chased by Bob, in the form of his doppelgänger. Cooper helps those who are good to him, like Dougie’s son and his boss Mullins, two characters who treat him with more-than-sufficient patience; he also helps those who are not, including those who try to murder him like Sinclair and the mafioso who run the Silver Mustang Casino, the Mitchum brothers.
On another recent trip, to the Tibetan village of Rebkong (Tongren or 同仁 in Chinese), the great thangka master Gendun Dargye explained to me the difference between how Tibetans view buddhas and how Han Chinese view them. “A Tibetan Buddha helps people in need without labeling them as good or bad.” A visit to his thangka training center was impressive. Fine paintbrushes in their hands, his students were engrossed in painting thangkas, conscientiously filling in the figures of buddhas, tracing stylized lines of clouds and leaves around them. In the serene workshop, even the youngest student, a boy around ten years old, was silently preoccupied with drafting. A ruler in one hand, a pencil in the other, he did not bother looking to see who I was but stared raptly at the rough sketch beside his canvas.
After a typical Tibetan lunch of buttered tea, tsamba (a traditional mixture of roasted highland-barley flour and butter which is eaten directly), and a massive bowl of mutton on the bone, I followed the master to his studio, where all his works were displayed. Except for one wall with windows, After a typical Tibetan lunch of buttered tea, tsamba (a traditional mixture of roasted highland-barley flour and butter which is eaten directly), and a massive bowl of mutton on the bone, I followed the master to his studio, where all his works were displayed.
there were thangkas, each almost a meter in height, completely covering the other three walls: blue, green, white, gold, and red. Tibetan buddhas in various poses, some with eyes closed and standing still, some sitting on thrones of lotus, hands resting on their legs – the master had animated them all. “Tibetans worship buddhas, we believe that buddhas bless us out of their extreme kindness, and there is nothing they want in return,” he explained as he rolled up one of his thangkas. Like a Tibetan Buddha, Cooper is willing to offer help but asks for no reciprocation. Dropped off at the casino by Jade, shortly after his return to society, Cooper helps an old woman dressed in threadbare rags, and feverishly playing a slot machine to win a jackpot. In a later episode, when they reunite in a restaurant, the old lady looking glamorous with her hair done up in a bun, bedecked in jewelry, Cooper even repeats “thank you” to her after she shows her gratefulness to him.
Though an altruist, Cooper does enjoy pleasure in his way too – he enjoys his characteristic coffee and cherry pie, and an intimate moment with Janey-E Jones. However, it is how Cooper enjoys these pleasures that reminds me of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama – one of the most important Living Buddhas in the Tibetan hierarchy. Although the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the King and even the God of the Tibetan people at that time, Tsangyang Gyatso never gave up his enjoyment of the pleasures that were dear to him: alcohol and women. During the day, in his lama robe, he dutifully read the sutras while overlooking Lhasa from the Potala Palace; during the night, disguised in the garb of a Tibetan layperson, he would sneak out to a local tavern, singing and drinking through the small hours with the women he loved so much.
However, it is how Cooper enjoys these pleasures that reminds me of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama – one of the most important Living Buddhas in the Tibetan hierarchy. Although the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the King and even the God of the Tibetan people at that time, Tsangyang Gyatso never gave up his enjoyment of the pleasures that were dear to him: alcohol and women.
Tibetan Buddhists respect nature, they hang prayer flags from poles on the plateau, from the trees in forests, hills, and mountains. Once they are hung, the prayer flags are not to be taken down. Blue, white, green, and red, each has scriptures printed in meticulous rows across their surface. The new flags shine, the older ones rot. As the wind passes through, all the flags flutter and the scriptures are read by the wind– it is a way for Tibetans to pray. Tellingly, mountains covered by forests and wind are critical elements in Twin Peaks as well – each episode in all three seasons starts with a scene of the rugged landscape outside Twin Peaks and a theme song inspired by the sound of wind. “Make it like the wind, Angelo,” Lynch famously told composer Angelo Badalamenti when he was writing “Laura Palmer’s Theme.”
The forest is also where mysteries derive from Twin Peaks. “There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods,” Sheriff Harry S. Truman once said. It is a place full of divinity to the residents of Twin Peaks, especially to Hawk and his nation, the Nez Perce. When Cooper asks about the White Lodge in Season One, Hawk replies “… there are other worlds. Worlds beyond life and death. Worlds beyond scientific reality.” To Tibetan Buddhists, as well, mountains and forests hold this status; these are places they believe to be pristine and sacred. They express their awe and reverence toward nature and the gods who preside over them through prostration, lighting holy candles, circling the base of mountains, and hanging the aforementioned prayer flags. Those flags, omnipresent throughout the land where Tibetans reside, witness the vicissitude of their lives. No matter how decrepit, the flags can only be laid to rest by the power of nature.
Twenty-five years ago, in the middle of the forest outside Twin Peaks, Cooper set up a blackboard and aligned Lucy, Andy, Harry, and Hawk, trying to narrow down the list of suspects in Laura’s murder. He tapped on the map with his pointer and explained his unique methodology, already irresistibly drawn to the history of Tibet. At that moment, the forest he saw and smelled, the wind he heard and felt, may have been imprinted indelibly in his brain. I imagine it was with that experience in his mind that Cooper, in all his curiousness and piousness, toward both nature and culture, endured the years of his disappearance.
In the first episode of Season Two, as Cooper lies shot, bleeding, and alone on the floor of his hotel room, he makes a recording for Diane about the things he regrets. “It goes without saying that I would like to visit Tibet.” Well, after twenty-five years, he need not feel too regretful that he has not been there yet, for he has spiritually joined the ranks of the Tibetan Buddhas.
-Ciel Qi was born in Xining, China. She studied at Soochow University and U.C. Berkeley, and currently lives in the greater Shanghai area.
Ciel Qi was born in Xining, China. She studied at Soochow University and U.C. Berkeley, and currently lives in the greater Shanghai area.